Friday, May 8, 2009

Why We Need Empathy

I've been reading Reading Lolita in Tehran and it's a fascinating look at how people who know better gradually succumb to tyranny. It is also an exploration of how literature affects us as readers. Maybe this resonates so strongly with me because I have always been such a rabid bibliovore. I have never been able to understand how some people don't like to read.

Empathy runs throughout the book. I can sometimes be too empathetic to the point that it becomes paralyzing, but we undervalue this trait. Empathy is what we learn in literature and it is what prevents us from creating an "us" and a "them". It allows us to see everyone as a complex person. Empathy won't allow you to de-humanize others. It insists that you try to understand or at least imagine their point of view. Without it, we can never really appreciate art.

Empathy makes it possible for me to respect someone else's choices. It is very easy to lump groups of people together and make assumptions about them based on that group affiliation. It is also very easy to judge them. But if we are really to respect the right of every person to seek spiritual truth on their own terms, we need empathy. Like I said, I tend to be very empathetic, but lately it has really difficult to respect the point of view of conservative Christians. I have been turning them into a "them" and you cannot love people when you think of them that way. If nothing else, I am going to have to remember to see the perspective of some of my relatives and not just view them as crazy people who are trying to make me miserable.

This would be much simpler if more of the Christians in my life showed respect and understanding for my choices, but I can't make them change their minds about my beliefs. I can, however, stop treating them like the enemy.

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